Everyone's a critic.
The Senate voted down a resolution on Tuesday aimed at ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. It was a bitter defeat, but not a humiliating one. Despite their failure, advocates for this measure insisted that the support of 44 senators was vindicating enough. For advocates of American retrenchment whose ascendancy was supposedly heralded by the rise of Donald Trump, times are tough, and they’ll take what they can get.
The measure—sponsored by ideologically divergent characters ranging from Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Bernie Sanders to Republican Sen. Mike Lee—attracted the support of some prominent Democratic lawmakers, some with their eyes on 2020. What’s more, it was a noble albeit doomed attempt by Congress to exercise its power to authorize American military involvement. Such constitutional authority has fallen out of favor with lawmakers as America’s inviolable commitments abroad have grown less popular over the decades. In the end, though, the effort to end America’s aid to Saudi Arabia, which has taken the form of refueling warplanes and sharing intelligence, was a minority proposition.
Both Sanders and Lee framed the vote as a chance for Congress to take ownership of its war-making prerogative, but that seems more like a pretext to register their dissatisfaction with a war that is being waged indiscriminately and without regard for civilian life. The conflict that needs Congressional authorization is the war in Syria. There, hundreds of U.S. forces are deployed in pursuit of a complex mission of deterrence and support. Occasionally, they engage in combat not only with militia fighters but with sovereign Syrian forces and their allies, including Kremlin-backed Russian mercenaries, which is in no conceivable way covered by the post-9/11 resolution authorizing the use of force against al-Qaeda.
But the Murphy/Sanders/Lee bill’s sponsors don’t want to sanction the conflict in Yemen (or Syria, for that matter); they want Congress to withdraw support for these missions and force the president into retreat. It is not as though this bill’s authors lack pragmatic alternatives, like the measure backed by Yemen war critic, Republican Sen. Todd Young, which would tie U.S. support to evidence provided by Riyadh indicating that they are scaling back the mission in Yemen.
Upon this resolution’s failure, the lawmakers who supported it vented their frustrations. “This war is deeply immoral and making America less safe,” Murphy wrote. Sen. Kamala Harris called the war a “humanitarian crisis.” Sanders called it a “humanitarian disaster.” They’re both correct, but that assessment does not address the strategic imperatives at play in Yemen. Sen. Dianne Feinstein insisted that it is “time we separate ourselves from this bloodshed,” which is a rather radical departure from her position on the conflict in Yemen just a few years ago.
In 2015, Feinstein insisted that Barack Obama had been overly cautious in the region. “We need some special operations in these countries, on the ground, more than just advisors,” Feinstein told CBS News specifically about the brewing Yemeni civil war. She added that America needed to be “more pronounced” in supporting its allies in the region, including Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The desire to let the Saudi-led coalition take care of the hard work of beating back both terrorist networks and Iranian proxy forces in Yemen wasn’t an especially controversial position at the time. Indeed, the vital strategic necessity of that mission was inarguable.
President Obama’s reluctance to commit the United States to anything beyond the occasional drone strike on rogue targets in Yemen was understandable, if ill-advised. But the rise of ISIS, culminating in the rapid seizure of vast swaths of Iraqi territory in the first six months of 2014, changed Obama’s calculus. In September of 2014, an Iran-armed and funded insurgency sacked the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, seizing the levers of power and forcing the largely Sunni government to regroup elsewhere in the country.
The threat posed by this insurgency was immense. Yemen seemed to be following a trajectory forged by Libya, which had recently become yet another failed state in the region where Islamist militias could gain a foothold. The Houthi-led regime in Sana’a was overtly hostile toward America’s counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen and rebuffed Washington’s obsequious overtures of friendship. The success of the Iranian proxy group represented Tehran’s latest victory following dramatic gains by Iran-backed proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The shifting balance of power in the region toward Shiite-dominated Iran compelled America’s traditionally Sunni partners in Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi threaten to take matters into their own hands (which, a few months later, they did).
Most critically, after the fall of Sana’a, the Houthis were expected to turn toward Aden, where the former president was believed to have fled. Aden is a strategic port close to the vital Bab al-Mandab Strait, the two-mile-wide northbound shipping lane of which is Yemeni territory. More than 60 commercial ships transit this strait on a daily basis on their way to the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea, and Europe. Providing Iran with the capacity to shut down, mine, or harass shipping in this strait represented an intolerable threat to American national interests.
If Barack Obama, a president genuinely committed to American modesty on the world stage, consented to support an allied intervention in the Yemeni civil war, it stands to reason that almost any American politician with an ounce of concern for U.S. national interests would have done the same. Congressional representatives have the luxury of critiquing the value of the American mission in Yemen, in part, because the conduct of the war by its Arab allies has been bloody and unsavory. The alternative, however, is direct involvement. Non-intervention is not an option, much as the members on Capitol Hill might like it to be.
It should induce some introspection on the part of reflexive anti-interventionists that the last three consecutive presidents have promised to scale back America’s power projection abroad only to adopt their predecessor’s extroverted foreign policy. Extroversion is the practical position; the default result of a sober cost/benefit analysis that compels politicians to shed their ideological convictions. Congress can and should exercise its authority to sanction the use of force abroad. It should also compel the White House to be more transparent about unpopular deployments. But an effort to force the president into retreat is dangerous, negligent, and historically disastrous. That seems like a perspective that only the presidency’s uniquely lofty heights can convey. For Congress, the partisan food fight takes precedence.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the former president of Yemen as Ali Abdullah Saleh.
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Yemen and the Ideologue’s Luxury
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The other last refuge.
Someone in the 19th century (Mark Twain attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, but that’s dubious) said that there are three forms of lying: lies, damned lies, and statistics. If you would like a beautiful example of the last category of mendacity, check out David Leonhardt’s April 15th column in the New York Times, entitled (try not to laugh) “The Democrats Are the Party of Fiscal Responsibility.”
In it, he compared the deficits run up by each Democratic and Republican administration from Jimmy Carter on to the present with the GDP of that time. Precisely how he did this is anything but clear. Is he, perhaps, confusing the debt with the deficit? For instance, he has the ratio for George H. W. Bush’s term as 0.4 percentage points. But the total deficits in those years were $932 billion and the total GDP was $23.9 trillion. That’s 3.8 percentage points. And how the national debt could double in eight unprosperous years under Obama while the “change in deficit, in percentage points of GDP” went down 0.1 percent is totally mystifying
Thus, Leonhardt committed the cardinal sin of statistics: using obscure methodology, which is the way people lie with statistics—presuming they are not just making the numbers up.
Whatever his methodology, Leonhardt was comparing apples and oranges. For instance, he ignores such factors as the raging inflation of the Carter years, when income tax brackets were not adjusted for inflation, pushing people into higher and higher brackets when their real income had not increased at all (This, of course, was one of the reasons why Carter carried fewer states in 1980 than Herbert Hoover won in 1932).
Leonhardt implicitly ascribed to the president the power to shape the budget and, thus, the deficit. But presidents have been effectively bit players when it comes to federal spending levels since the wildly misnamed Budget Control Act of 1974. It was not Bill Clinton who slew the deficit dragon in the 1990’s but the Congress, which the public transferred to Republican control in 1994 for the first time in 40 years following an outcry over Democratic profligacy. The Republican Congress increased spending by a mere 18 percent between 1995 and 2000, while the roaring economy increased tax revenues by 51 percent.
Nor did Leonhardt take into account the phony accounting the federal government uses to obscure reality. Officially, we ran surpluses (meaning, by definition, that income exceeded outgo) in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. But the national debt went up, not down, in each of those four years.
Nor did he take into account the fact that recessions cause government spending to go up and government revenues to go down—something quite beyond the control of Congress or the President. The brutal recession of the early 1980’s (when unemployment reached 10.8 percent), for instance, skewed Reagan’s numbers while Carter’s four years were largely recession-free.
There’s plenty of blame for both parties, of course. As Jesse Unruh famously said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” But in the last forty years, the only time the federal government made a serious, sustained effort to rein in the deficit was when a Republican Congress was writing the checks.
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The totalitarians’ arguments always end up in the same place
The great shortcoming of democracy is and always has been the demos. John Adams, like many of the Founding Fathers, abhorred the very idea of democracy, precisely because it provided the means to amplify and weaponize the demos and its vices: “It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy,” he wrote in a famous passage. “It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.” Conservatives of the more pointy-headed variety enjoy taking any occasion to tut-tut loose talk of “democracy,” insisting on “republic.” They may be pedantic on the point, but there is a point: What’s most valuable about the American constitutional order isn’t universal suffrage (a relatively recent innovation for us Americans, though it’s worth appreciating that some Swiss women were not enfranchised until 1990) or regular elections—what’s most valuable is in fact all that great anti-Democratic stuff cooked up by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason and sundry Anti-Federalists: a tripartite government with a further subdivided legislative branch in which unelected senators (oh, happy days!) had the power to frustrate the passions of the more democratic House; a Bill of Rights depriving the demos of the right to vote at all on certain fundamental questions such as freedom of speech and of religion; a Supreme Court empowered to use the law as a cudgel to beat back democratic assaults on liberty and citizenship; the hated filibuster; the holy veto; advice and consent.
The dread of illiberal democracy goes back at least to Polybius and his ochlocracy, and, though he did not use the word, to Plato before him. It was very much on the minds of the American founders and those of later liberal thinkers such as Karl Popper. That democracy might grow abusive and tyrannical in service to popular passions—to “the violence of faction,” as Madison called it—is a very old idea. But a curious version of that concern began to emerge in the early 20th century, most famously articulated by the German political theorist Karl Loewenstein in his “Militant Democracy and Fundamental Rights,” published in the American Political Science Review in 1937. In surveying the European politics of his time, Loewenstein identified a number of remarkably similar totalitarian movements, some of them asserting their fascism and some of them formally opposed to the self-proclaimed fascist parties of their time, the latter a case of ote-toi de la, que je m’y mette, Loewenstein thought. Loewenstein understood fascism not as an ideology but as a method, one that exploited nationalism and newly available forms of media to achieve “a supersession of constitutional government by emotional government.” The parallel with our own time need not be belabored, but Loewenstein is very much worth reading today: “The technical devices for mobilizing emotionalism are ingenious and of amazing variety and efficacy, although recently become more and more standardized,” he wrote.” Among them, besides high-pitched nationalist enthusiasm, the most important expedient, perhaps, is permanent psychic coercion, at times amounting to intimidation and terrorization scientifically applied.”
Fascism, Loewenstein argued, wasn’t about nation, race, corporatist economics, or indeed any positive political agenda at all. “If fascism is not a spiritual flame shooting across the borders,” he wrote, “it is obviously only a technique for gaining and holding power, for the sake of power alone, without that metaphysical justification which can be derived from absolute values only.” Democracies, with their sense of toleration, fair play, equal treatment, liberal access to the political system, and open elections, were in Loewenstein’s view lamentably vulnerable to fascism. His program was to counteract autocratic movements with autocratic means such as prohibiting certain political parties, repressing their political communications, and limiting their participation in the political process in order to prevent them from using campaigns for propaganda purposes. “Democracies withstood the ordeal of the World War much better than did autocratic states—by adopting autocratic methods,” he wrote. “Few seriously objected to the temporary suspension of constitutional principles for the sake of national self-defense. During the war, observes LéonBlum, legality takes a vacation.” An exile in the United States, he named this model of defending liberal democracy with illiberal and undemocratic methods “militant democracy.” Translated into German, streitbare Demokratie is today an important constitutional principle of German government. It forms the philosophical and legal basis for prohibiting neo-Nazi literature and prosecuting extreme nationalists for acts that would ordinarily be unremarkable and unobjectionable parts of democratic discourse, such as holding rallies and giving speeches.
Until quite recently, it would have been unthinkable for the United States to set aside the First Amendment and allow for the suppression of unpopular political speech and the criminal prosecution of the speakers. Americans might have understood why the Germans do things the way they do, and sympathize—and they might even have thought that this was the proper model for the Germans, given their history—but the United States has never experienced a great need for streitbare Demokratie, because the American freiheitlich-demokratische Grundordnung has been robustly defended by other means. Some of those fortifications are structural and constitutional: The limited powers of the federal government and the division of those powers limits autocratic ambitions of all ideological stripes. Some of those fortifications are cultural: George Lincoln Rockwell and Richard Spencer are greeted as amusements, not revolutionaries—grotesques, not messiahs. Every American has a little Puritan in his soul, and the ostentation of fascism historically has achieved very little purchase among us.
Loewenstein did not believe himself to be an advocate of illiberalism or autocracy in an authentic and meaningful way, because what he understood his “militant democracy” as being used to suppress was not a political belief but a political technique. One hears echoes of his idea in the arguments of modern advocates of “campaign finance reform,” the very nice way we talk about suppressing and regulating political speech coming from unapproved parties at unapproved times or in unapproved contexts. They insist that they are not trying to control speech but to control the influence of money on politics—as though it did not cost a great deal of money to publish the New York Times, which exists at least partly for the purpose of influencing politics. (As, indeed, do all newspapers.) But Loewenstein’s idea is ultimately totalitarian (and the world did not and does not need yet another totalitarian ideology of German origin) as is the program of the campaign-finance reformers—as indeed is the program of those who would through legal action or through extralegal violence prohibit Charles Murray from giving a speech on a college campus, those who would ban dissident sermons about gay marriage or the wanton use of unapproved pronouns as “hate speech,” those who advocate the arrest and suppression of activists and scholars with unpopular views about climate change, presidents who threaten to sic the federal regulators on media critics and left-leaning technology companies, mayors who would use the powers of government against nonconformist evangelical chicken-sandwich merchants . . .
The totalitarians’ arguments always end up in the same place: militant democracy. If Ben Shapiro is permitted to speak on a college campus, the argument goes, then the gas chambers can only be a few days away. Well. I would like to go back to Loewenstein’s time—1937—and inform that gentleman, a German Jew in exile, that in anno Domini 2018, the great threats to American democracy are a mild-mannered Orthodox Jew with a newspaper column, a histrionic Kentish homosexual with a book to peddle, and one or two nice blonde ladies from Connecticut. I do not think he would believe that. Neither do I. And, for all the stupidity of our current moment in history, the United States today is not very much like Weimar Germany.
(It remains wise to study the European experience, which you can do if you are in Washington on Wednesday, April 18. The Cato Institute will be hosting the Danish lawyer and social critic Jacob Mchangama at noon in the Hayek Auditorium. Mchangama has done a great deal of work illuminating the idea of “militant democracy” in Europe and its ramifications for free speech in the United States.)
“Militant democracy” is meant to address the purported inability of democracies to contain fascism; a more immediately pressing question is whether liberalism can contain democracy—it is mass democracy itself, not jackbooted stormtroopers, that poses the most dangerous threat to freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, property rights, and other fundamentals of citizenship. It is the democratic mob, not an autocratic elite, that demands conformity in life and thought and speech, and brooks no dissent. Donald Trump’s worst autocratic tendencies are a product of the same kind of hysteria—that very same “supersession of constitutional government by emotional government”—as is the garment-rending and teeth-gnashing that greets Ann Coulter every time she feels the need to step out in public and top up her bank accounts. It isn’t only Trump’s crowds chanting “Lock her up!”
This is not a dystopian possibility at some unhappy future date but the facts of the case today. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has called for prosecuting Charles and David Koch as traitors and war criminals for their political activities. And it’s not just loose talk and heated rhetoric: The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank, was subjected to subpoenas (including demands for information about its donors) because the nation’s Democratic attorneys general don’t like what its former patron Exxon has had to say about global warming in the past. ExxonMobil remains under investigation for its activism and advocacy on climate change. As attorney general of California, Kamala Harris illegally demanded donor lists from conservative nonprofits for the obvious purpose of subjecting them to political bullying. The IRS harassment of Tea Party groups and the National Organization for Marriage is not a hypothetical—it is history.
The regnant political assumptions of the moment call to mind the worst of the Wilson era, when the risible “fire in a crowded theater” standard was invented as a fig leaf for imprisoning peace activists and draft protesters (and, as in the Baltzer case, those who organized petitions criticizing incumbent politicians), while the cultural currents of the time are pure Red Scare (minus the Reds, who were, alas, all too real). The rough beast, its hour come at last, slouching toward Washington to be born is a democracy a good deal worse than merely militant—it is vicious, merciless, and total.